Xavier Nelson Jr. is a writer and game developer, famous for his work on games like Hypnospace Outlaw. He recently asked devs and fans on Twitter to share different ways games have reused assets. The resulting replies are filled with some amazingly creative and ingenious asset recycling.
Making games is really hard and takes a long time. If you are like me and have never actually made a game before, it can be nearly impossible to understand just how hard development can be or how long it can really take. So to help save time, money and headaches, developers will often reuse assets in creative ways. But as Nelson also explained to me, reusing assets isn’t always a time saver and is a testament to how inventive developers can be.
While some gamers might see this as lazy, the reality is this is an important technique and helps devs finish your favorite games in a shorter amount of time. And some of the ways devs reuse assets are just as creative and interesting as the story or action found in their games.
Developer Jessica Ross explained that on one unnamed game, she had to animate a person having their heart ripped out of their body. However she didn’t have time to animate a heart so instead relied on some pastries. “I didn’t have time to model a heart, so I just took a baguette, scaled it down, and made it red.”
As pointed out by developer Ruby on Twitter, Warframe reuses many assets in various different ways. (To clarify: Ruby isn’t a developer on Warframe.) For example, as seen in the tweets above, some weapons are scaled up to and used to create new geometry on ships.
Another Twitter user, Carl Muckenhoupt, shared how Telltale reused a character model from a poker game to create an enemy in a different game. All it took was a name change and a mustache.
Reshma Zachariah, an indie developer on the game Origin Trail, explained that all the wood objects and structures in the game come from one single tree. “Every single thing in the game — every house wall, wooden wheelbarrow, every pole... it’s all from the same tree.”
One of my favorite examples of reusing assets and content was shared by Kelly Snyder, who previously worked at Bungie. She explained that Aksis in Destiny 1 was just a heavily modified spider tank. “This is why 3 of coins doesn’t work on him- on the back end he’s technically not an ultra, he’s a vehicle.”
Some folks might see this reuse of assets as lazy. But Nelson told me this was not the case at all. In fact, while reusing assets can save time and money, it can also be even harder than making something new. “The problem solving needed to get a new solution from old pieces can take just as much effort, if not more, than just creating something new,” Nelson said. “Reused assets are a testament to developer ingenuity, not a willingness to cut corners.”
Reusing assets can happen for various reasons. Sometimes a project is low on funds and taking the time to figure out clever ways to repurpose enemies or items can help save money. But other times it can be a technical limitation. For example, a game getting too big for a cart and needing to reuse assets in clever ways to save space.
Nelson did admit that some games that are just straight asset flips do exist. These are games that are generally made very quickly using pre-built assets that are purchased on engine stores, like Unity. These games can be found on Steam and Google Play. But these are different from a developer reusing assets in a creative way.
“[Asset flips are the] equivalent of someone buying a Spider-Man costume on the internet and uploading their 720p backyard shenanigans as SPIDER-MAN: THE MOVIE. It’s not the real thing, and it wasn’t intended to be in the first place.”
In many ways, asset recycling is not unlike how many props get reused in TV shows and movies. The logic being, if you already made a set of space chairs, why make new ones if the old ones will fit in the scene? Especially if the chairs are barely seen in the movie anyway? Reusing assets in games can serve a similar purpose. If you already built a monster or sword for one game or level, why make a totally new one?
As games become bigger and bigger, with better-looking graphics and more complex systems, it will become harder and harder to make games in a healthy and affordable way without reusing assets. But this isn’t a bad thing. Reusing assets, if done correctly, will go unnoticed by most players and not ruin the game.
And it can lead to game development becoming easier, quicker and even less unhealthy. It can also help developers overcome budgetary or technical limits. And for eagle-eyed fans, it can provide a fun game-within-game, as they search for the source of that jetpack or building.